Three historians have savaged the notion of “sex addiction” as incoherent, puritanical and likely to lead to ineffective therapeutic treatments for “something that doesn’t really exist”.
Sex Addiction: A Critical History surveys rock stars’ memoirs, television chat shows and media coverage of celebrities such as Russell Brand and Tiger Woods, in addition to examining best-selling books by therapists, diagnostic tools and academic articles. It is co-written by Barry Reay (Keith Sinclair professor in history at the University of Auckland), Nina Attwood and Claire Gooder (both lecturers in history at Auckland).
“It is the first really systematic look at the concept with a historical dimension,” Professor Reay said. “We probably went into it thinking we would be critical of popular culture and the therapists themselves, but didn’t expect to be so critical of academic treatments.” Yet many, in his view, proved “almost laughable”.
The book cites one study whose “description of the malady” included such diverse examples as “a fantasizing tennis coach, a cross-dressing seminarian…a teenager who had sex with the family maid, a masturbating nun and the Boston Strangler”.
Many studies use “sophisticated measurements”, Professor Reay said, yet “no one thinks whether they are measuring something real. They just assume it’s real and don’t think to enquire whether it’s a viable concept.”
Furthermore, determinations of who counts as a sex addict tend to rely on self-reporting and also “vary culturally, religiously and morally”. Thus, what the book calls “sexual conservatism” is often built into the definitions. Not only do many treatment options rely on variants of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step programme, with its stress on God and spirituality, but two critics cited argue that even the screening tests for sexual addiction reveal “a deep-seated bias against most forms of sexual expression”, save those confined “within the extremely narrow and myopic scope of a monogamous, heterosexual marriage”.
Sources quoted in Sex Addiction say the issue is “a rapidly growing problem” that may be “the next tsunami of mental health”, affecting millions. Professor Reay and his co-authors see no evidence for such claims and think the concept an intellectually incoherent one that pathologises behaviours that many would think normal and pleasurable.
But what about those in distress who seek help for what they or their therapists call “sex addiction”?
“There is nothing wrong with people seeking therapy for their sexual problems,” said Professor Reay, “but I don’t think sex addiction is a very useful label for such therapy.”
Sex Addiction: A Critical History is published by Polity Press.